Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection of Huh-7.5 hepatoma cells results in focal areas of infection where transmission is potentiated by cell-cell contact. To define route(s) of transmission, HCV was allowed to infect hepatoma cells in the presence or absence of antibodies that neutralize cell-free virus infectivity. Neutralizing antibodies (nAbs) reduced cell-free virus infectivity by >95% and had minimal effect(s) on the frequency of infected cells in the culture. To assess whether cell-cell transfer of viral infectivity occurs, HCV-infected cells were cocultured with fluorescently labeled naïve cells in the presence or absence of nAbs. Enumeration by flow cytometry demonstrated cell-cell transfer of infectivity in the presence or absence of nAbs and immunoglobulins from HCV(+) patients. The host cell molecule CD81 and the tight junction protein Claudin 1 (CLDN1) are critical factors defining HCV entry. Soluble CD81 and anti-CD81 abrogated cell-free infection of Huh-7.5 and partially inhibited cell-cell transfer of infection. CD81-negative HepG2 hepatoma cells were resistant to cell-free virus infection but became infected after coculturing with JFH-infected cells in the presence of nAb, confirming that CD81-independent routes of cell-cell transmission exist. Further experiments with 293T and 293T-CLDN1 targets suggested that cell-cell transmission is dependent on CLDN1 expression.
Conclusion: These data suggest that HCV can transmit in vitro by at least two routes, cell-free virus infection and direct transfer between cells, with the latter offering a novel route for evading nAbs.